Words and photographs by Gordon Lewis
One of my ongoing interests—I won’t use the word concerns because that could imply worry or anxiety—is how long my images will last. Given my own impermanence, I lack the hubris to expect that any photographs I’ve produced will last forever. I’d certainly love for later generations to consider my work good enough to be worth maintaining, but that’s up to them to decide, not me. In any event, I won’t be around to enjoy it.
All I’d really like at this point is that my images last at least as long as I do. I’m 61 years old and have been practicing photography for over 45 years. I’m happy to report that most of my photos are in remarkably good health. (So am I, by the way.) I still have negatives and prints from the late '60s that I developed when I was in high school. These are all black-and-white; I wasn’t shooting in color then. Although I’ve been reasonably careful about proper processing and storage, I haven’t been fanatical, so the fact that these images have lasted as long as they have is a testament to the fundamental stability of B&W film and print media. Although it’s more difficult to produce prints or JPEGs from my old film images than from files shot with a digital camera, it’s still possible. If I reproduce my film images digitally, the results can be significantly better than what I was able to achieve in the darkroom. (And I was a pretty damned good B&W printer, thank you very much.)
I shot this photo of the legendary bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins, at the Ash Grove, a folk and blues club in Los Angeles. The Ash Grove burned to the ground in 1973. Hopkins died in 1982. This image is scanned
from the original Tri-X negative.
There are exceptions of course. Prints I made on resin-coated papers are much more prone to bronzing and other discolorations than my fiber prints, especially when mounted under glass. Color transparencies have been more stable than color negatives and prints, though some of my oldest color prints have that authentically “aged” look that digital filters try to mimic.
Ironically, some of my early attempts at digital archiving have been the least stable of all. Images I once copied onto Zip Drives and Kodak Photo CDs are now irretrievable. I’m still able to read my Kodak Picture Disks on 3.5" floppy media, but the resolution and image quality are only slightly better than what you’d expect with a decent camera phone. That said, my more recent digital archives on external hard drives are doing fine so far.
Another exception to digital decay is my digital prints. Inkjet pigment prints of mine have been framed and exposed to indirect sunlight for at least ten years and still look as good as the day I printed them. I also have images that have been digitally printed onto silver-based color paper. These have been stored in boxes, folders, or albums and still look fine, which is to say they generally don’t look as good as the prints I made myself, but they are more than good enough for family archiving purposes.
This, in my opinion, is one of the strongest arguments for making any prints you produce as archival as possible: Why go through the time and expense of printing if fading may cause you to have to reprint years later, with no guarantee that you’ll be able to find the original negative or file, or duplicate your original printer profile, paper, and settings? It’s far more efficient to get it right the first time. Also, should I—or you—drop dead tomorrow, prints in clearly labeled boxes, envelopes, or folders are a lot easier for your survivors to find and share than raw files on one of your backup drives.
If there’s any drawback to being consistent and well organized in the way you maintain your images over time, it’s that word will begin to spread among your friends, acquaintances, and relatives whose own photo filing methods are, shall we say, lacking. You’d be surprised how often I get calls or emails from people I photographed years ago and barely remember, asking if I still have the prints or negatives and, if so, whether I can send them a copy. More often than not, I can. I don’t mind either; after all, it’s flattering that my photographs would be important enough to someone else that they would seek me out for copies years later.
This is one of my first successful attempts at shooting and processing my own film. It’s of my dog Prince and was most likely shot in the summer
of 1967, on the front porch of my home.
The person you don’t want to be is the one who can’t find a photo you shot three months ago, has no backup copies of his image files, either no prints or prints and negs stored in a damp basement, or has all of his images stored on a hard drive that has started making “funny noises.”
Laugh if you’d like, but for those of you who have been active photographers for at least a decade or two, can you locate your earliest images and, if so, what condition are they in? I’d really be curious to know.
©2014 by Gordon Lewis, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Jordi P: "As a 19-year-old it is a question I sometimes ponder. I am thinking about my own lifetime posterity rather than poshumously. Still have the original files of my first pictures I took in 2004 as a kid.
"(Cringed a bit on the decade mentioned on the last paragraph.) Took up film shooting for learning and all the negs, prints and slides shot I have in a drawer. Should get around classifying them one day. On the external HDD's I got I finally got sround to sorting the photos by year and month subfolders last christmas. Should do a backup soon again.
"The after I die question is one I don'think about! Despite growing in the digital age, I mistrust digital media for unassisted archiving. Given the nature nowadays of this medium, I expect a 'digital dark age' of some sort. Causalities: In 2009 and 2011 I misplaced (lost) a couple of folders. Sadly the former contained photos of a family friend that passed away. Resalised its value late. Nowadays I do a lot of casual photography around my college life and for sure I am going to be the one who keeps photos of things. A quote that has been etched in my mind, by Mr John Free, is: 'It's not about you, it's about them.' So I hope to not be the guy with lost files as it isn't only me the one affected."
Stephen Cowdery: "I have tens of thousands of images going back to the mid-'60s, negatives and slides, all in pages in three ring binders by year. I can find any image in a couple of minutes. B&W negs are all perfect, color negs have shifted but are usually restorable, Kodachromes, Anscochromes (GAF) 3M slides are very good, but Ektachromes are all over the place—some from the '70s have faded to red quite badly, others are OK.
"I worked many years in a lab specializing in printing from old media. The only B&W negs which were a problem were very old nitrate-based ones which had started to dissolve(100+ years old.) Color negs from the '50s were usually very bad, old slides from that era usually had some fading (except Kodachromes) and often had fungus spots. Prints were all over the place—the old prints in the best condition had all been toned."
Wolfgang Lonien: "Gordon! So good to hear/read from you. Though it's only since December, I miss your 'Shutterfinger' blog—but I also understand the perfectly good reasons to stop you listed there. Wishing you and yours well from Germany—and thanks for this article as well!"
Speed: "My prints, negatives and slides are like Schrödinger's cat—they are both there and not there. In my mind all are well preserved in sleeves, envelopes and folders in a box in the basement. In reality they may be lost. As long as I don't open the box...."
Joseph Brunjes: "shoot most of my serious work on 8x10 tintype. I like tintypes because you get a 'print' minutes after the exposure. (I procrastinate with printing my B&W negatives.) We still have tintypes from the 1860s that were not stored in climate controled spaces or behind glass. My varnished plates should easily last hundreds of years."